Brushstrokes Deborah R. Meyer:
Published: Feb 08, 2012 02:00 AM
Modified: Feb 06, 2012 05:48 PM
Memories of 'Champ'
Focal Point shows photographer's intimate images of Ali
Muhammad Ali, the world famous boxer who began his journey to fame when he won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, turned 70 on Jan. 17.Focal Point Gallery threw a birthday party to celebrate. Ali wasn't there to taste his cake. Still, his presence filled the gallery.Twenty-nine photos of Ali culled from thousands taken by Chapel Hill photographer Sonia Katchian from 1974 to 1988, are on display at the gallery, 1215 E. Franklin St., through Feb. 28.Katchian will give a short talk at 7 p.m. Friday during the 2nd Friday Artwalk. Her professional photos of Ali and other people and places are in collections worldwide, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Katchian's career began while a student in art history at New York's Barnard College. She was watching the riots at Columbia University that concerned the Vietnam War."A few people around me were taking photos, and someone I respected told me I should start taking pictures," Katchian said. "I asked him why, and he said that it was an art form. I didn't believe it was an art form."After graduation, Katchian took a job at a Wyoming ranch, where a boyfriend gave her his Nikon."He was a painter," Katchian said. "I was a struggling painter and was no good at it."Upon leaving Wyoming, Katchian got an assignment from the alternative newspaper the Berkeley Barb to cover a George Wallace campaign event. "That was seminal in my career, as it put me right in the middle of politics and it gave me some of the best pictures I have taken to this day," Katchian said.Indeed, Life magazine published one of her color photographs of George Wallace."It shot me right up the ranks of photographers," she said. "All of the photo editors knew me when I called."In 1974, Katchian was turning her lens on famous people in film and politics."I wanted to discover what makes them such big names, what they are like in person," Katchian said.By then, Ali was already among the most famous athletes in the world. He had won the heavyweight championship with a stunning victory against the favored Sonny Liston in 1964, then changed his name from Cassius Clay to his Islam name, and in 1967 was arrested and stripped of his title when he refused to be drafted into the armed forces.Katchian knew little of this, but one day she and her sister Anahid were in New York City's Sax Fifth Avenue and there, suddenly, was Ali.Anahid pushed the reluctant Katchian in his direction. Finally, something awoke in her, and she followed Ali out of the store."I lost him and then spotted a taxi cab," she said. "I wondered if it was him and went over, leaned my head down and the window opened. I told him I would like to photograph him sometime. He got a piece of paper and jotted down the phone number at Deer Lake, his training camp in Pennsylvania. He would have done that to anybody. I was nobody special."Katchian called the number and was given directions to Deer Lake by one of Ali's aides.Her photos of Ali appeared in Sports Illustrated and Sport, and Katchian continued to bloom in her career, covering the civil war in Beirut in 1975 for the Associated Press, among other things."I was mesmerized by Ali's humor, his aura, his warmth and personality," Katchian said. "He has more charisma than anybody I've ever met."A photograph in the show of Ali at Deer Lake in 1974 is one of the show's most intimate. It shows Ali sitting on a log in front of his accommodations. Katchian had spent the night at the camp, gotten up at 6 a.m., opened her door and saw him sitting on the log all by himself."That is a sight I had not seen," she said. "He was always either surrounded by family or trainers. My jaw dropped. I called him Champ so I said, 'Champ, don't move. I'm going to get my camera.' He just nodded up and down. He understood that those moments had to be captured. He was very media-savvy. It was a moment. You wonder what he was thinking about. The fight? You see a suitcase in the far distance in the photo. He was going to a press conference for the Ali-George Foreman fight," Katchian said.There are so many wonderful anecdotes like this to be heard, and viewing the photographs is a very moving experience, perhaps even more so for those of us who grew up watching Ali box, stand up to the establishment, voice his love of God and the Nation of Islam, and show that humanitarian work should be done by all.Katchian and her camera were in Kinshasa, Zaire on Oct. 30, 1974, when Ali won his heavyweight title back by stunning Foreman. She and her camera were there in The Philippines on Oct. 1, 1975, when Ali fought Joe Frazier for the third time in the epic battle known as the "The Thrilla in Manila."This show is a wonderful blend of the public and private Ali. "One thing I want to convey to people is how Ali is such a gentle and humble person in real life, the complete opposite of what he is on the world stage whenever the cameras are on," Katchian said.The gallery is open Thursday through Sunday, noon-6 p.m.. In addition to the exhibit's prints, which can be purchased, viewers are welcome to look at The Ali Folio, a boxed set of 14 of Katchian and Ali's favorite images. It sells for $10,500, but viewing it is free and unforgettable.
Deborah R. Meyer can be contacted at 942-3252 or at email@example.com.